Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Develop a Richer Understanding of Stuff

Reading the introduction to a new book written by a fellow archaeologist, I'm reminded of how far some members of our little academic minority within archaeology are from the contract archaeology mainstream.

Archaeology, to my mind, is about looking at old things to find out what life was like a long time ago. This is the sole rationale of field archaeology and museum collections. We look for patterns in the archaeological record, we formulate as plausible interpretations as possible, and we anchor them as robustly as possible in the data at hand. Then we dig some more and confront our old interpretations with new data, revising our ideas as we go along. As Mats P. Malmer put it, "archaeology asymptotically approaches the truth about the past".

Not so in my colleague's view. Important goals of his book are:
  • to "develop a richer understanding"
  • that it "attempts to show the importance of developing a theorised and imaginative engagement with the ... archaeological record"
  • to "provide exciting new interpretations"
I find these phrases completely alien. To me there is only one kind of science, the one that aims to find out what the world truly is and has been like. I view this as a complicated enterprise in any subject, where scientists will often hurry down the wrong path for a while until they realise their mistake and get back on track toward the truth. But a "richer" understanding has nothing to do with it. Imagination comes into science only when we formulate hypotheses and devise experiments. A theorised engagement with the source material is the only one possible, and so needn't be emphasised, as no sentient being ever engages with anything without preconceived ideas. And whether an interpretation is exciting or not, new or old, is completely irrelevant: the question is if it's more plausible than the others, and above all, testable.

The author I'm reading suggests that the challenge for the next decade within his entire field of study would be to "move towards considering" a series of concepts that simply look outlandish and arbitrary to me. He isn't introducing new testable hypotheses and he isn't offering new data to test old ones. He isn't arguing that any earlier interpretations regarding concrete events in the past are actually wrong. His goal seems to be to teach his readers a new vocabulary where everyday words have subtly new meanings, and to convince them that it would be valuable to talk about the source material in his terms. To me it all looks like literary criticism, aesthetics, a glass bead game.

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